By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics
Trouble is brewing. Early in March, California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) released its decision on the adequacy of 12 subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) in the San Joaquin Valley. Six were adequate. Six, including Kern’s, were deemed inadequate.
By way of background, in January of 2022, DWR, having reviewed the submitted GSPs, found most of them incomplete and advised groundwater managers of modifications needed to make them adequate. The agencies had 180 days to comply. That initiated a flurry of activity resulting in the submission of revised plans. DWR has now reviewed the revised plans, leading to their March findings.
Subbasins plans could be inadequate because they fail to address several issues adequately, such as subsidence, water quality impacts, justification for critical groundwater levels, impacts on drinking water, depletion of surface waters that are interconnected to groundwater, and lack of coordination or inconsistent data between GSPs in the same subbasin. In Kern’s case, DWR highlighted three deficiencies that had been identified in the notice of incompletion that, despite significant progress from the previous draft plan, still needed to be addressed to the satisfaction of the Department. DWR wanted 1) a better justification of how undesirable results in the subbasin were established, 2) a better explanation of how the various minimum thresholds will collectively achieve the sustainability goals and avoid undesirable results for the subbasin, and 3) a better basin-wide approach to land subsidence, including management criteria and assessment of impacts to critical infrastructure from future subsidence.
With DWR’s finding of inadequacy, “state intervention” was triggered, and jurisdiction now shifts from DWR to the State Water Resources Control Board (the Board). The Board has broad discretion under SGMA. They are required to make a determination regarding probation following a public hearing. The Board can decide whether to put a subbasin on probation. If they do, the Board can impose fees on groundwater users, limit groundwater pumping, work with (i.e. regulate) pumpers directly without having to work through the Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), and is required to collect a substantial amount of information on farmers’ groundwater use. There are many issues to unpack there. The biggest concern is that the Board essentially has only one tool to utilize to achieve sustainability – reduce groundwater pumping. Another concern is that it will not just be the GSAs appearing at the State Board hearing. Several environmental organizations have taken an interest in the SGMA process and would like to see more done – with some, like Clean Water Action, even suggesting that the GSPs deemed “adequate” by DWR are deficient. Groundwater managers can expect conflict at the hearings.
Suppose the issues that caused the basin to be deemed probationary are not addressed during the probationary period. In that case, the State Water Board may begin another public process to determine whether or not to develop and implement an interim plan for the basin – that is, impose their own plan to achieve sustainability. If that sounds concerning, it should be.
With DWRs determination, the path to groundwater sustainability became much more uncertain. Kern County has some genuinely excellent water managers. Regardless of the Board’s decision, Kern’s water managers will continue to move forward with implementing their plans to achieve sustainability as prudently as possible. The deficiencies within Kern’s revised plan are easily fixable with cooperation between the GSAs. DWR had to review six GSPs for Kern County: the Kern Groundwater Authority, Kern River, Buena Vista, Olcese, Henry Miller, and South of Kern River. One scenario is that the revised plan will be redrafted and the deficiencies corrected. The Board will have much bigger problems to deal with than those in Kern and hopefully will defer a decision on probation subject to a review of the revised plans. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for mischief, and that has water managers rightly concerned. While the formation of different GSAs intended to protect the interests of their respective water users, now is the time to put aside remaining differences and stay out of the way of the State Board.